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October 27, 2017

Boston University, New England’s largest private university, is merging with Wheelock College, which has seen its enrollment drop. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Facing dwindling enrollment and financial problems, in the past year three private colleges in New England have merged out of existence.

A new report suggests that even more colleges across the country should merge before they get in financial trouble. But there are some things schools can do to stay afloat.

Wheelock College was founded 130 years ago in the heart of Boston's Fenway neighborhood, after Lucy Wheelock looked around the city of Boston, noticed rising income inequality and wanted to help low-income families.

"She was going to do that through early childhood education and establish the school," said David Chard, the president of Wheelock — at least for a few more months.

Earlier this month, the small private college agreed to merge with Boston University, New England's largest private school. The two local institutions will become one, beginning June of next year.

Sitting on the Boston University campus, Chard ticks off several red flags: declining enrollments in key programs and the inability to provide a rich experience to students.

“For us, the central costs of running a college are still fixed and increasing and we weren't able to pay our faculty and staff what they deserved," Chard said.

Chard says the merger with BU is the best option for continuing Lucy Wheelock's vision.

"We invited 60 institutions to write proposals,” Chard explained. “We got six, and those six were all strong, but only one was responsive. BU allowed us to control the pace of the decision-making and nature of the decision-making."

LISTEN: WGBH's On Campus Radio speaks with Wheelock's David Chard and TIAA Institute's Ricardo Azziz.

The Wheelock-BU deal comes as mergers become more common in higher education.

Last year, Berklee and the Boston Conservatory joined forces. So did Andover Newton Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School.

Experts expect more mergers, especially here in New England where lots of small colleges compete for a shrinking number of high school graduates.

"I think that you're going to see a number of schools close, merge or be acquired over the next 10 to 20 years," said Ricardo Azziz, chief academic officer at the State University of New York.

Azziz co-authored a report by the TIAA Institute, recommending schools incorporate the possibility of merging into their long-term strategy.

"We often see mergers being considered when it's the-last ditch effort to keep school doors open, and that's probably not the best time to be considering a merger,” Azziz said. “Waiting to the last possible moment, I think, creates a situation which may lead to failure of the entire enterprise."

In 2016, more than half of all small private colleges across the country saw their enrollments drop, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

The Hechinger Report: Colleges Join Together To Survive Enrollment Problems

For many schools like Wheelock, resources have become so scarce that they may no longer have any choice but to merge, shut down or specialize.

"There are many small institutions that actually can do very well into the future, and those institutions are the ones that develop a niche market, can brand themselves very specifically to a population,” Azziz said. “Just because you're small doesn't mean that you should be considering a merger."

Just a few blocks away from Wheelock in the Fenway neighborhood, Simmons College has managed to stay competitive.

Spokesman Jeremy Solomon says what Simmons did was focus its undergraduate curriculum on grooming female leaders. It also invested in online graduate programs in nursing and social work — for women and men.

"Our graduate programs have offered us revenues that we otherwise would not be able to invest in our undergraduate programs," Solomon said.

And so far, it's paid off.

For the past three years, Simmons has recorded the highest undergraduate enrollment in its 118-year history.

"Merging is not what we need,” Solomon said. “We need to double down on what we're best at."

For other schools that are struggling, deciding to merge is tough. Still, by some estimates, more than 800 schools across the country should consider that step.

Earlier: Are Reluctant Retirees Undermining Innovation On Campus?

wheelock, Boston University, TIAA, higher ed, new business models

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